Will Enrique get a call-up? Spain's best-ever player, more Mailbag
Xavi's importance to Spain and Barca makes him arguably Spain's best-ever
Financial inequality in La Liga to continue until Real and Barca's power curbed
Valencia's rational approach keeps finances manageable and team contending
Why doesn't José Antonio Reyes get a call-up for the Spanish national team?
There's a Spanish phrase that talks about some answers/explanations having a name and a surname and it's tempting to conclude that this is one of those cases. Question: why doesn't Reyes get a Spain call up? Answer: Juan Mata, David Silva, Jesús Navas, Santi Cazorla, Pedro Rodríguez (although I'm not sure if Pedro counts as no one ever uses his surname). Reyes' sudden surge in form in the season Atlético won the Europa League owed something to the fact that Quique Sánchez Flores, the coach, persuaded him that if he kept playing well there was a chance that he would make it to the World Cup with Spain. In truth, there never was a genuine chance. The players ahead of him are just too good and there is also a sense (which may be a little unfair) that Reyes is not as reliable either -- personally or professionally.
If you were in charge what would you do to make La Liga more competitive? What can actually be done? And why is TV money distributed so poorly in Spain?
The difference between what Madrid and Barcelona earn and what a team like, say, Racing Santander earns is colossal. €120 million-plus ($163M) against around €12 million ($16.3M). In other words, 10 times. Compare that to the difference between top and bottom in the Premier League of around 1.6x. The problem is of course that the difference reflects an economic reality and negotiating muscle: Madrid and Barcelona are very well aware that they are the teams that people actually want to see and that they are the only clubs that can generate really huge amounts of money. The viewing figures of some of Spain's other clubs can be pathetically small. Because the clubs have negotiated individual TV rights in recent years, that has formalized the difference between the clubs and made it an economic as well as a social reality -- what a club can earn is now directly proportionate to what it can generate and how much support it has. Of course, that stems from an absence of any concept of a collective league; every club looks out for itself. The product is each club rather than the league -- a vital difference between La Liga and the Premier League for instance. A new proposed deal currently on the table will be struck and managed collectively but will enshrine the differences -- and that has prompted a backlash from some of the smaller and midsize clubs, led by Sevilla's José María Del Nido who has called the league "prostituted" and "the biggest pile of crap in Europe." But the rebellion was short-lived, crushed by Madrid and Barcelona, which helps to show why it is so hard to rectify the current situation. Madrid and Barcelona can maneuver the other clubs into "agreeing" with them. So what can be done to increase competitiveness? First of all, the league, as non-club-dependent body, needs some sort of coercive power -- at the moment it is utterly toothless. (But that is very hard because it is the clubs that make up the league). Then a more even distribution of money needs to be imposed; TV revenue is not everything but it is a gigantic factor in determining performance on the pitch. I would also be in favor of restrictions on squad sizes and loan deals to try to prevent the bigger clubs simply stockpiling players. This is such a big subject, and such an important one, that I think it is worth revisiting it via previous articles here:
Three part look at the imbalances in La Liga and the role of TV rights in that, both now and under the proposed new deal:
What do you think of Marcelo Bielsa's poor start at Athletic Bilbao? Is he the wrong man for the job? Other than a mega-rich new owner, what will it take for Athletic Bilbao to return to Spain's elite group of clubs?
A mega-rich owner would, in theory, make little difference because Athletic is already sufficiently rich to be able to buy the vast majority of players that it wants to buy -- taking into consideration that it will only play Basque footballers (and, yes, it is true that the definition of Basque can be elastic). For example, if Athletic had all the money in the world, are there any Basque players out there that it would buy? Xabi Alonso? Mikel Arteta? Xabi Prieto? But would any of them want to go to Athletic anyway? The best Basque players, i.e. eligible players for Athletic, are already at San Mamés. Within the limitations of the policy, it has almost as strong a squad as it could ask for. That poses the question: should it change the policy? Probably not because fans do not want to, they are identified with Athletic, and because then they would be thrust into an arena that does not promise any more guarantees in any case: financially, it can compete with other Basque clubs to buy the players within its policy limits but it would not be able to complete with Madrid or Barcelona if those limits were removed. So what is to say that non-Basque players would necessarily perform any better unless they were buying the very best players around? Might it not be that the Basque identity enables them to over perform and therefore even in purely sporting terms is beneficial? It is certainly harder than it once was because Basque players used to make up a huge proportion of the La Liga players (back in the 1930s for example, almost half of registered footballers were Basque) whereas now the market has been expanded to the whole world while the Basque pool has remained the same. The result is a pool that is now closer to 5 percent of players in the first division. Naturally, that means the team is less competitive than it once was -- but that is a consequence of a policy and an identity that it is determined to stick too. As for Bielsa: he is trying to invert a tradition that goes back a long, long way and that is far from easy. He wants Athletic to play in a very non-Atletic sort of way (yes, of course there is a certain degree of generalization and cliché in that). If he is to construct something, he needs time. But it is also true that there appear to be some very basic things that he is getting "wrong" -- players out of position, etc. -- and that it is proving hard for the players to capture his message. It is too early to suggest that it will not work but it certainly isn't at the moment. I think Athletic do have the players to opt for a more elaborative, technical and creative style, by the way, and so Bielsa's policy is not doomed per se. The person who most loses out in all this could prove to be Fernando Llorente.
Will José Enrique get a call-up to the Spanish national team?
Yes, and probably very soon. Spain have a genuine problem at left back which has only been exacerbated by the disaster that is Joan Capdevila's move to Portugal. I would not be surprised to see José Enrique in the next squad and as first choice by next summer.
Is the historical and political element in the Madrid-Barcelona rivalry still relevant or is that just hype now? Why has it become so tense? (It never used to be until Mourinho turned up). If you had to kick Real Madrid or Barcelona out of the league who would it be?
That's some question and we could be here all day dealing with it. The historical and political element (with all its inaccuracies and caveats) remains very important and, for a lot of fans, particularly Barcelona ones, is still the central plank of the rivalry. For others of course it is irrelevant but often even those who dismiss it as irrelevant have attitudes that are underpinned by political, historical and cultural questions. Yes, it has been hammed up on occasions (and so much of what is said is simply wrong) but this is about more than just two clubs, that is for sure. These are identities, cities, in some minds even countries. It has become more tense in the last year because of Mourinho (among other things), sure, but it would be wrong to accuse him of having created a tension that did not exist before. Don't forget that a pig's head was thrown at Luis Figo. The context is important too -- the frustration of seeing the rivals win, the realities of the way in which they have won, the pressure from within and without. For Mourinho, Barcelona's continued success has of course been an aggravating factor, while for Barcelona, Madrid's attempt to overcome that dominance (and they way in which they have attempted to do so) has been likewise. Also, the sheer intensity of the media has helped to make it seem bigger than ever, more tense, more ugly, more aggressive. Plenty of nasty things happened in the past. Another new aspect is the extent to which this has an international dimension now: some of the most rabid Madrid and Barcelona fans appear to have never set foot in either stadium but they do contribute to the noise that surrounds this game. As for kicking them out, Madrid and Barcelona -- who have far, far more in common with each other than they would ever like to admit -- have to go hand in hand. You'd have to kick them both out. They're not the same without each other -- theirs is a symbiotic relationship.
Why are away followings in Spain so small?
Spain is a much bigger country than England, for example, and traditionally transport communications were not as good but it is also a cultural question. Soccer is watched in your stadium or on TV or listened to on the radio. Also, fans are victims of a league that has shown them an utter lack of respect over the last decade: they have failed to fix the dates and kick off time of games until eight days before. That makes planning trips, getting tickets, harder than ever. Impossible, in fact. Especially as kick off times tend to oblige supporters to make an overnight stay. Never mind clubs and players, it is time fans rebelled.
Who do Barcelona want to sign this winter?
No one. There is not the money to go heavily into the market so unless Barca is forced to do so by injury, do not expect any signings
Is Manuel Preciado's job safe at Sporting Gijon?
For now, yes. He is well liked by the squad and the fans and there is a fear that if he were to go Sporting might get worse not better -- they are aware of the limitations of the squad (and without Diego Castro those limitations are even more stark than before). Manuel Vega-Arango, the president, ratified Preciado's position this week. Although it is also true that their relationship is not as good as it appears.
Why have Atlético Madrid ended in such a financial mess despite being one of the strongest clubs in Europe in terms of revenue generation?
It's tempting to conclude that this is another answer with a name and a surname. Two names and surnames, to be precise: Miguel-Ángel Gil and Enrique Cerezo. The financial mismanagement and wasting of money has been on a monumental scale. And, frankly, it's more than just mismanagement.
Excluding Madrid and Barcelona players, who is the best player in La Liga?
Great question; difficult too. Last season, I would have probably said Giuseppe Rossi, although he has had a difficult start to the season. Juan Mata has gone. Maybe Santi Cazorla -- fast, clever, technically gifted, and ambidextrous. I am also a huge admirer or Fredi Kanouté. And looking at Atlético, there is an obvious early candidate with Radamel Falcao. Javi Martínez is a player I admire a lot too. And right now, Roberto Soldado and Álvaro Negredo stand out. I'd have to go for Cazorla.
Will Messi ever leave his comfort zone to prove himself in another league?
I doubt it and I'm not convinced that he needs to, either. Messi has proved himself in the Champions League -- he has been the top scorer for three years running and I don't think anyone seriously doubts that he is the best player in the world right now. In fact, I think the debate has passed onto another plane: it's not about whether he is the best now but whether he is among the best there has ever been.
Is it fair to call Xavi the best-ever Spain player?
Yes. His role has been of colossal importance to the best Spain (and Barcelona) team there has ever been. As I've written before, I see him as more than just a player -- he is the ideologue.
Who do you think will be relegated and has your opinion changed since before the season started?
Not massively, although the superb start from Levante suggests that it will be better off than I anticipated. I must say, I thought Luis García's departure would be a massive blow to them. It is too early to reach major conclusions but some things have been striking already: just how good Betis are, for instance. Two teams that I thought would struggle, I still think will struggle -- Mallorca and Racing. Granada, too. And Sporting. So maybe these three: Racing, Granada, Sporting.
Can Valencia sustain their great start and which players will be crucial to that? How do they keep on performing despite selling their best players?
Yes, I think they can. Not to the extent of challenging for the title but I do think it remains the strongest candidate to win the "other league," by coming third. Roberto Soldado's goals will of course be vital to that (will he be the next big sale?) and if he can get continuity then Éver Banega's role in the middle of midfield will be vital too: he is a genuinely special player when on form. Valencia keeps selling its best players but it rebuilds well, spreading the huge fee from one player on two or three more, while keeping some revenue to service their debt. It has acted with a rational approach that contrasts with other clubs and indeed with its own previous regime. Valencia also has a big squad that enables it to assimilate departures and a coach who I think has -- not withstanding some major mistakes -- done an excellent job. Two players that really stand out, by the way, are two of its summer signings -- Victor Ruiz and Rami, who will be vital to bringing them greater stability.
Which teams will get Champions League places this season?
Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and ... Atlético.
Should Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi and other superstars get protection from the referees as Platini suggested?
Yes and no. Referees should be applying the rules rather than trying to protect specific players. (And I'm not sure that Platini was advocating differential treatment). Messi and Ronaldo do need protecting but then so do others. The big ugly defender gets kicked too -- and that foul is every bit as much of a foul as the one committed against Ronaldo or Messi. There is a bit of mythology built up around the need to protect those two -- they are not, in fact, among the most fouled players in the league statistically. And they are far more protected that players were in the past (that's one of the big differences between Messi and Maradona, for instance: Maradona got kicked to bits). That said, to some extent the desire to protect the most creative players is natural. It would be a terrible pity for Messi or Ronaldo to be out injured for a long time. But I also think there is a misconception that suggests that by penalizing every contact you protect the spectacle: you don't. Often, all you do is break the flow of the game. Authoritarian refereeing does not make for better soccer -- and that is a mistake that I think is made too often in Spain. Of course it is also true that overly permissive refereeing is a problem too. And there has to be an awareness from referees of situations in which a certain player is targeted. You need to prevent situations where a team take it in terms to kick a certain player. Deliberate fouling should be penalized with direct red cards. Too often the question of intent seems not to play a part in decisions.
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Many thanks for all your questions and sorry I couldn't answer every one of them, or any mentions that have been left out above. I have stored some up and we'll do another mailbag in the not too distant future. Feel free to send more my way either by SI.com's mailbox or by Twitter: @sidlowe. Please include #SIpostbag